Thursday, February 14, 2008

Scrum Down at Amman Airport

After a good meal, we land at Dubai Airport. Of course my “get into the lounge” plan fails miserably. Then worse – I find a Starbucks here but they don’t have Green Tea Frappuccinos – I can only assume this will be the same in Amman. Anyway, I find a spot on the floor, and to my pleasure discover that the wireless internet is free. I make a start on the blog, occasionally explaining pleasantries with the Iraqi chap sitting next to me. So about 350 photos needed to be uploaded. 350. Do you know how long it took me. Let’s just say that being stuck here in the airport all night has saved me quite a bit of money on internet cafés. I change some money into dollars again to replenish the “emergency” stock that Ethiopian Air exhausted. I’m going to be so tired by the time we arrive into Jordan.

We land at about half past nine in the morning, to a clear blue sky and sunshine. It’s 5 degrees Centigrade! Goodness I wasn’t expecting that! First stereotype of the Middle East over-ruled: it is not always baking hot! The South African girl next to me tells me there was snow a week ago! All of the planes in the airport apart from ours are Royal Jordanian.

Out into immigration, and what a scrummage! There are the main queues on the left, then the Visa on Arrival (or so it was implied) queues on the right. But first, you have to change money into Jordanian Dinars to pay for the visa. Charge is 10JD, or about 15 USD. There are a few different change places in the hall, so I pick Bank of Jordan, who somehow manage to turn 15USD into exactly 10JD. Suspicious, I examine the receipt, only to find it’s the 5% commission that eats up the rest of the change. Why don’t they just have ATMs here? It’s not clear (the same banks have ATMs outside).

Mind you, I can’t get too critical; this from Human Rights Watch: Criticisms of the king, government officials, and the intelligence forces are strictly taboo and carry serious penalties. Prosecutors also rely on the penal code to criminalise speech diminishing the prestige of the state, and harming relations with other states.

So I join one of the by-now long queues. They move slowly, and there’s strange shuffling going on at the front, with people being redirected to different queues, some going to join the right queue at the back, others, mostly Arabic, just barging in to where they’ve been pointed. Some extra queues open up and there’s the usual scrabble to move across to the new lines, one of which I join, again at the back. When I finally get to the front, the chap says to me no, this is not a visa line, this is a “passport” line, I should join the next queue. The Japanese person in front of me gets told they don’t need visas, and she should go join one of the long normal queues instead.

So queue up again, get to the front, and for my 10JD I have a postage-stamp stuck in, along with an ink stamp, and a piece of plastic put over the postage stamp, presumably to stop it being removed and reused. It’s hard to make out, but I think one part of the stamp says I should contact Immigration Police after one month, which is presumably the visa validity period. Then he hands the passport over to the chap who sent me away before, who asks me my name (tough security checks here!) then stamps the whole lot again. I ask him what I do next, he tells me to just walk past the immigration lines without queueing up. I do this, but feel a bit conscious, and wave my stamped passport about in case they think I’m trying to enter illegally and decide to shoot me or something.

After all this wasted time (and it really was silly – has no one sat down and thought about how much easier that process could be made?), my bag is already waiting for me. Outside, refreshingly I get zero hassle. There are a few taxi drivers waiting with name boards, but that’s it. Welcome to the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan, which incidentally is the 60th country I’ve visited in the world! Woohoo! No safety online either: Also in October the State Security Court sentenced Muhammad al-Zuhairi to 18 months in prison for lese majeste over online postings he had made.

I take some money out from the ATM (1 UKP = 1.38 JD according to and go to find the Airport Shuttle Bus, which is a modern coach sitting outside the terminal. It leaves shortly afterwards. For about 3JD this takes me into the North Bus Terminal, which ends up surprisingly taking just over an hour (airport is only 26km out, but traffic gets steadily heavier as one approaches the centre). From the North Terminal, I have to get to the South Terminal, whence Petra buses depart.

So we whizz along the fairly good-quality highway, passing a signpost for the turn-off to the Iraqi border!! Gulp!

At the roadside there are periodically vegetable sellers with carrots and radishes, cauliflowers and oranges. I hope we’re back to normal oranges here, African oranges are horrible, all fibre and no juice, and absolute devils to peel! There are plenty of billboards along the way, and the traffic is a mix of freight and cars. There are farms and fields next to us.

We stop every 5 mins or so to pick up passengers. The locals are dressed in warm winter jackets and scarves, I’ve got my flip-flops and a t-shirt (Pippi’s ‘Make Tea Not War’ one) on. We pass a sign for the Dead Sea. I wonder how far that is, and whether it’s feasible for me to visit. I’ve been told the Israeli side is nicer, but it seems having an Israeli stamp in your passport, or other stamps from which you can deduce a visit to Israel, such as Jordanian exit stamps for that border, is a curse for visiting the rest of the Middle East. Most Arabic countries will not permit you to enter with an Israeli stamp in your passport. What a pathetic childish way for a country to behave!

On our left, we pass the Centre for American Doors, at which the girls across from me giggle, I think they may be Brits. The landscape starts getting more built up – we’re reaching Amman. As far as eye can see the land is covered with creamy-coloured square blocks, usually 3-4 stories or so, up and down over the undulating hills. We pass Pizza Hut! Hello people, we have civilisation!! Then a KFC too, well isn’t this exciting. Passing a few police, I notice that there uniform includes a strange spiked hat, similar to the German army helmet of old, but blue in colour.

We start weaving about in the city, going through underpasses and clearly in the central district. At last, the bus terminal, where hundreds of coaches are parked up. Disaster strikes as I help an Arabic lady get her bag out from under the bus – my phone’s screen cracks and unusable! I get some minor hassle from taxi drivers who want to take me all the way to Petra, then settle for taking me to the other bus terminal, but I’d rather take the bus. And why not, as it turns out to cost about 35 piastres, the 100-base division of the dinar. This bus passes right through the middle of town, then emerges out the other side and reaches the South Terminal, which again is pretty much a large car-park with lots of coaches and buses all over the place. I find the right area, there’s no bus but others are waiting, and wait. I’m feeling very tired!

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